Florida Democrats this week chose Rep. Charlie Crist to challenge Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in November. Crist, who once served as Florida’s governor as a Republican, decisively beat his chief rival, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. Crist got 59 percent of the vote to Fried’s 35 percent. After criticizing Crist during the campaign for his past support for conservative policies and his record on abortion, Fried conceded and vowed to give Crist her full support. “We are going to make Ron DeSantis a one-term governor, and a zero-term president of the United States,” she told her supporters. “We Democrats have to come together like never before.”
Crist fares better than Fried in polls against DeSantis, but he trails by enough to be considered a clear underdog. FiveThirtyEight gives DeSantis a 92 percent chance of winning in November. Florida’s governor has been firing up former President Donald Trump’s MAGA base for months, pushing abortion restrictions, fighting coronavirus restrictions, and barring schools from enacting policies designed to increase sensitivity to gay and transgender students. Crist hopes to pull off an upset in a year when Democrats are overperforming in bellwether special elections. He has promised to sign an executive order protecting abortion rights on his first day in office, which could help him tap into the energy of voters angry about the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v. Wade. Does Crist stand a chance, or is DeSantis unstoppable?
Crist could win by making the campaign about DeSantis’ bullying
Crist is a “mild-mannered moderate on the trail,” says Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post, but he “came out swinging at DeSantis,” calling the incumbent a “bully” who threatens Floridians’ “fundamental freedoms.” The newly minted Democratic nominee “accused the governor of imitating the worst political authoritarians around the globe, and bashed him for refusing to call out his flag-waving neo-Nazi supporters.” If that sounds like “he is running against former president Donald Trump,” it’s because he is. “He’s battling a mini-Trump who adopts the same inflammatory slogans (‘woke’ seems to be his favorite word), and who also refuses to unequivocally denounce white nationalists.” Florida is trending red, and DeSantis is a well-funded incumbent good at dominating the headlines. But Crist might have come up with a winning playbook against DeSantis, or “any MAGA Republican nominee in 2024, by making his “bullying and violations of freedom the central issue.”
DeSantis is too good at his job for Crist to beat
Attacking DeSantis for acting like Trump is a questionable strategy in a state Trump won, twice, says Kevin D. Williamson at National Review. Florida is “purple on paper,” with 5 million Democrats, 5.2 million Republicans, and 4 million unaffiliated voters. “But Democrats have a hard time winning elections there. The state hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1994.” One explanation is that “Florida Republicans are — hear me out — smart.” Jeb Bush was a very good governor for the Sunshine State, as was Rick Scott, now one of its two Republican senators. “Ron DeSantis’ decision to cast himself as Donald Trump’s Mini-Me has been at times silly and undignified, but he, too, has been an effective governor.” That record inspires confidence among the right-leaning independents who decide elections in the evenly split state. Crist might peel off a few “country club Republicans” turned off by DeSantis’ “Trumpiness.” But the party-switching Crist is no game-changer. He’s “the athletes’ foot of Florida politics — irritating, embarrassing, and kind of gross, whichever side he’s on.”
Crist might lack the ‘firepower’ to overcome DeSantis’ advantages
“Few Republicans ignite the same kind of outrage among Democrats as DeSantis does,” says Max Greenwood at The Hill, but it’s not clear Crist and Florida Democrats have the “firepower” to beat “a governor whose political rise among conservatives appears, at times, unstoppable.” The “political landscape has shifted drastically,” largely due to the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe, the landmark ruling that had made abortion legal nationwide for half a century. But early polling shows DeSantis leading Crist comfortably. DeSantis has many big advantages. He “has pulled in more than $100 million for his re-election bid — an amount more in line with that of a top-tier presidential candidate than a state official seeking a second term in office.” Crist’s fundraising haul isn’t even close. And, in another sign of Florida Democrats’ struggles, “the number of active voters registered with the GOP surpassed the number registered as Democrats for the first time in the state’s history — an advantage that has only continued to grow since late last year.” Defeating DeSantis remains a longshot, and Democrats know it.
Democrats are dreaming. DeSantis isn’t vulnerable
Calling Crist a longshot is an understatement, says Ed Morrissey at Hot Air. DeSantis has been making this election season all about him for months. “DeSantis has been pushing back against abortion, sex-change surgeries for minors, illegal immigration, and even still had time to derail a progressive prosecutor for refusing to enforce the law. Democrats have had months to take the wind out of DeSantis’ sails. All they have wound up doing is fanning the winds right back into them.” DeSantis has consistently polled around or above 50 percent against Crist and Fried, “a pretty comfy position for an incumbent.” And “Democrats have spent all year throwing the kitchen sink against him” without making a dent in his lead. Asking whether Crist can pull off an upset and beat DeSantis in November is a “tepid thought experiment.” The answer is obvious. “Nope.”
Crist could be the right candidate at the right time
Crist’s landslide primary win made it clear that Florida Democrats “are fed up with losing close statewide elections to Republican extremists,” says the Orlando Sentinel in an editorial, “and they realize that only Charlie Crist can stop Ron DeSantis’ one-man reign of authoritarianism and intolerance.” DeSantis, “unchecked by a lapdog Legislature,” has “made the office of governor a dark dungeon of culture war grievances aimed at school boards, businesses, women and LGBTQ people.” He has turned his office into “a propaganda machine to promote his presidential ambitions,” leaving “real-life pocketbook issues” like affordable housing and high energy and property-insurance costs unsolved, while pushing through “a 15-week abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest” and promising an “open carry” gun law in a second term. Crist unites while DeSantis divides, and voters will see that when they debate.
Florida Democrats can’t stop DeSantis without help
“To compete with DeSantis, who has already broken state records for his fundraising, Democrats must appeal to a national audience,” says Emily L. Mahoney at the Tampa Bay Times. But it’s a hard sell. The Sunshine State is notorious for its big, expensive campaigns, and its rightward shift makes it a potential “money pit for big national donors.” There’s still reason for Florida Democrats to hope that “national Democrats will send in the cavalry. Better fight DeSantis here, this thinking goes, than in a more expensive and expansive run for president in two years.” But DeSantis has been “unfazed” by Crist’s and Fried’s broadsides, hardly mentioning them on the trail. He has been “focusing instead on raising his national profile and raking in so much money that the only question, in the mind of his backers, is how big his victory margin will be.”